Victory or Death: The 5th U.S. Colored Troops Receives Its Colors

    The formation of the 127th Ohio Volunteer Infantry regiment, which later became known as the 5th U.S. Colored Troops, was attended with unique difficulties not faced by any other regiments raised by the state during the war. It was the only black regiment raised solely in Ohio, and initial efforts were handicapped by the lack of formal authority to raise such a regiment. In the spring of 1863, hundreds of Ohioans left the state to join the 54th and 55th Massachusetts regiments, and Governor Tod resolved that Ohio, too, would recruit a regiment of black soldiers. He appointed Captain Lewis McCoy of the 115th Ohio to open a new camp at Delaware, Ohio for the purpose of organizing the regiment.

     "The only law which gave a semblance of authority to such an organization was that known as 'The Contraband Law' which gave a colored laborer in the service of the United States $10 per month, $3 for clothing, and $7 as his pay proper," Whitelaw Reid reported. "Recruiting progressed slowly; the few who had enlisted became dissatisfied and the organization with difficulty was kept together. Finally an order from the War Department called colored men into the service of the United States. Boards were convened for the examination of officers and promises were given that the next Congress would provide for them by placing them on an equality with the other troops.  The organization was changed from the 127th Ohio to the 5th Regiment of United States Colored Troops and Giles W. Shurtleff of Oberlin was appointed lieutenant colonel. This gentleman, who had previously made a fine reputation as a gallant officer in the 7th Ohio, infused new life into the enterprise and brought order out of chaos to such degree that recruiting went on more rapidly."

A company of the 127th Ohio/5th U.S. Colored Troops musters on Sandusky Street in Delaware, Ohio in the fall of 1863. (Ohio History Connection)


    By the end of October 1863, nine companies totaling 800 men had been raised but efforts were unavailing in raising the final company. "Strenuous efforts are being made to recruit and organize the tenth and last company, but recruiting has been progressing slowly of late owing to a misapprehension among the colored people of the state as to the pay, premium, and bounty, which are allowed them," a member of the regiment commented. "Pains having been taken to set them right in this matter, it is hoped they will readily respond to this call which was made upon them."

    In early November, orders were received from the War Department ordering the 5th U.S. C.T. to the front regardless of organization status, and efforts turned towards equipping the regiment for service in the field. One of the most essential items of equipment was a set of regimental colors which was presented to the regiment on Monday, November 9, 1863 at Camp Delaware. Shillito & Company of Cincinnati made the flag, described as "a splendid set of regimental colors of unsurpassed workmanship. The inscription on the banner is 'Victory or Death,' a motto which expresses well the high resolve with which the regiment will go into battle," it was reported. John Shillito, a Cincinnati merchant, operated a five story dry goods establishment on 4th Street and during the war produced national and regimental colors for many regiments.

    A member of the regiment wrote about the flag presentation ceremony in this remarkable letter published in the Cleveland Morning Leader. "The day was anything but a pleasant one for a flag presentation," he wrote. "It was very cold and stormy, the wind blowing violently and the snow being driven in the faces and eyes of the spectators rendered it disagreeable in the extreme, yet everything passed off well. All seemed delighted with the proceedings and appeared to leave the camp with better hopes and impressions than they had before entertained."

    

Regimental colors of the 127th Ohio/5th U.S. Colored Troops; I believe that this particular 35-star flag was from a later set of colors issued to the regiment since the "Victory or Death" motto appears to be absent. 

    Camp Delaware, Delaware, Ohio 

    November 10, 1863

    For some days back there have been intimations that the regiment was to be presented with a stand of colors, but it was ignorant of the precise time at which it was to be done. Yesterday, however, the expectations of the regiment were realized. After the usual bustle at headquarters, it was announced that His Excellency Governor David Tod and others would visit the regiment and would assist in the ceremonies of the flag presentation. Accordingly at the proper time, the Governor and his friends appeared, escorted by the Chillicothe brass band and a host of attendants, both white and colored, from all parts of the state. Among those with the Governor included former Governor William Dennison, Hon. G. Volney Dorsey, General Mason, Captain Burr, Samuel Galloway, John M. Langston, Daniel Jenkins, and Matthias Mitchell. 

    As is common with our excellent Governor, he doffed all superfluous style and took upon himself the trouble of getting to camp from the depot in the most ordinary manner imaginable. Having dispensed with the conveyances which were prepared for them, the party took up the line of march and after some fretting, considerable joking, etc., arrived safely. A dinner which for rustic simplicity equaled anything of kind ever prepared even for soldiers was disposed of with zest. Perhaps eating without chairs and other modern luxuries in the midst of a snow storm, the wind blowing a furious gale all the while, was something a little more novel and romantic than expected, yet it was done and well done by those present. The only thing remarkable connected with it was the dispatch with which the edibles were devoured. Of course, the usual after dinner chat was very much abbreviated.

John Mercer Langston
Lawyer, Congressman, and Abolitionist

    The homely repast being finished, the regiment was drawn up and the colors were presented. John M. Langston, the man chosen by the colored people of Ohio, made the presentation speech. The speech itself was very appropriate and eloquent. He spoke warmly of the interest which was felt in this regiment by the colored people, and besought the men of the regiment to remember that all eyes were fixed upon them and that to some extent, they had it in their power to vindicate the name and honor of the colored men of the state.

    His speech was responded to by ex-Governor William Dennison on behalf of the regiment. Governor Dennison was eloquent, logical, and convincing. Always good, on this occasion he was felicitous, indeed. He referred to the wrongs which the colored race has suffered on this continent, to the doubt which hung over their capacity to make good soldiers. He feelingly alluded to the pangs of grief caused by the separation from friends, and expressed the hope that their friends would soon be gladdened by the return of those whom they held dear. He believed that the colors which he received in the name of the regiment would never been dishonored by the unworthy conduct of those who bore them.

    Next came our good old Governor Tod, and right pleasantly did he deport himself. To him, the men of the regiment were his boys, and he wished never to know them by any other appellation.  He had watched, guided, and cherished them as such, and he should ever hold them as dear as his own sons. It had been his first experiment in the organization of colored regiments, and it had been crowned with the most abundant success. He concluded his remarks by informing the regiment that he had in his hand the commission of Lewis McCoy, who would forthwith on his acceptance of the same assume command of the regiment. [McCoy must not have accepted it, as Colonel Conine assumed command once the regiment arrived in Virginia in December 1863.]

Governor David Tod served one term as Ohio governor from January 1862 through January 1864. His two year term was marked by numerous state crises, starting with the struggles meeting the Federal government's recruitment quotas, Edmund Kirby Smith's Kentucky invasion in September 1862, the Holmes County rebellion, problems with arresting Copperheads like Edson Olds and Clement Vallandigham, and finally Morgan's Raid. A former Democrat, Tod's leadership and loyalty to the Lincoln Administration's war aims made him a target of derision of the Democratic press of the state who jokingly called him "Back-Bone Davy." Tod also initially opposed the recruitment of black troops in the state, but eventually came around to the idea after a meeting with John M. Langston. A staunch advocate of protecting the rights of the soldiers, he pushed the Ohio Legislature to allow the Buckeye boys to vote in the 1863 gubernatorial election. Lincoln appreciated Tod's leadership stating that "Governor Tod has aided me more and troubled me less than any other governor." Offered a position within the Lincoln administration, Tod turned it down citing declining health and political differences with the more radical elements of the Republican Party. He retired home to his business interests in Youngstown and died of a stroke in 1868 at age 63. 

    On his retirement from the stand, he was greeted with the most vociferous applause. In all probability, he was convinced that the parental affection which he had manifested was most cordially reciprocated. Dr. Dorsey [state treasurer] was then introduced and made a very appropriate and elegant speech. He proclaimed himself the colored soldiers' friend. He has always been known as such. He asked to be remembered by them and if in the future he could render them of their families any assistance, he would cheerfully do so.

    The days proceedings were concluded by the presentation of a fine gold watch and chain to the wife of Colonel McCoy and a beautiful ring to him by the non-commissioned officers and privates of the regiment. Mr. Langston asked him to accept them from the regiment through him as a testimonial of the high esteem in which he was held and as an emblemation of the regard the regiment felt for him. The reply was full of feeling. He was rejoiced at these manifestations of love for him.

One of the two flank markers carried by the 5th U.S.C.T. during the war. These small flags were carried into action on long poles and marked either flank of the regimental line. 

    The 5th U.S.C.T. departed Ohio a few days later and arrived in Norfolk, Virginia where it participated in raids into North Carolina. It later took part in the siege of Petersburg and suffered its worst day of the war on September 29, 1864 at Chaffin's Farm where it lost 85 killed and 248 wounded; four members of the regiment were presented with the Medal of Honor for their distinguished gallantry at Chaffin's Farm. The regiment later took part in operations against Fort Fisher and Wilmington, North Carolina. The regiment mustered out of service in September 1865. 

    For more reading on the 5th U.S.C.T., I highly recommend Versalle F. Washington's regimental history entitled Eagles on Their Buttons: A Black Infantry Regiment in the Civil War which was published in 1999 by the University of Missouri Press. Colonel Verb Washington retired after 30 years' service in the U.S. Army and currently teaches American History at the University of Dayton

Sources:

Reid, Whitelaw. Ohio in the War: Her Statesmen, Generals and Soldiers. Volume II: The History of Her Regiments and Other Military Organizations. Cincinnati: The Robert Clarke Co., 1895, pg. 916

Letters from "T.," 5th U.S. Colored Troops, Cleveland Morning Leader (Ohio), October 30, 1863, pg. 3 and November 12, 1863, pg. 3

"The Ohio Colored Regiment," Cleveland Morning Leader (Ohio), November 11, 1863, pg. 1

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